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Smiling with God: Rev. Marlin Sapp’s ministry journey

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communication, Dakotas UMC

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Rev. Marlin Sapp. Photo by jlynn studios.

"I always say God had a sense of humor by making me a pastor. I'm probably the least likely person to do it because, you know me, I'm a troublemaker," said Rev. Marlin Sapp, who will enter a retired relationship with the Dakotas Conference this year after serving 16 years as a licensed local pastor.

Many would ask Marlin Sapp throughout his life, "Why aren't you a pastor? You should be in ministry full-time."

Marlin Sapp grew up in Hazen, North Dakota. His mother was not a regular at church, and his stepdad was Catholic. Nevertheless, Marlin was welcomed by Hazen United Methodist Church, formerly an Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). 

He recalled that Rev. Peter Ackerman encouraged Sapp and two other young people to consider entering the ministry. "He thought there were three of us that should become pastors—myself, Rick Loewen, and Steve Stanley," Marlin recalled.

After graduating from high school, he headed to Illinois to work. Then, he returned to the Hazen area, where he worked as a carpenter, painter, and in retail. Pastor Marlin met and married Carol at grandma’s farm just outside Great Bend, North Dakota. The wedding took place on the weekend, away from their Hazen and Golden Valley hometowns.

"I called my grandma and said it's time to call your pastor so we can get married," said Pastor Marlin. "The UPS driver delivered a package and said to Carol, 'You came back from being away for the weekend, here you had a different last name.' I am thankful my grandparents were in good standing with the church and the pastor would marry us."

Marlin and Carol became active in the United Methodist Church, serving on committees and teaching Sunday School. He taught Sunday School for 25 years and spent much of his time at the church.

"I thought I was doing enough by teaching Sunday school for over 25, but then I was asked to fill in and lead worship," recalls Sapp. "Then I took courses to become a certified lay minister. I took courses and was encouraged by Revs. Dave and Don Andrews."

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Pastor Marlin Sapp delivers a sermon at Linton UMC on Sunday morning. Photo from Facebook.

For several years, he filled in for worship at Hazen, Beulah, Golden Valley, and other places in North Dakota. In addition, pastor Marlin filled the pulpit for congregations that were United Methodist, Lutheran, and other denominations.

He became dean at camp with Rev. Bruce Adams. "Bruce invited me to lead a camp with him at Lehr Camp. After a while, we moved to Storm Mountain Camp. We led camps for twenty years," said Pastor Marlin. "It was a camp for kids in grades four through six. We called it Treasure Seekers. We taught the kids that they needed to seek the treasure of God. We also found a way to share treasures like the old gold mine at the camp."

Carol and Marlin were also active Conference Council of Youth Ministries (CCYM) leaders. Some of the youth that Carol and Marlin worked with are now pastors in the Dakotas Conference and beyond— Paul Lint, Robbie Salmonson, Cody Schuler, John Telenga, Brandon Vetter, and William White, to name a few.

"Carol was great at getting youth involved. She helped with CCYM, and you will find her name on the Youth Worker Hall of Fame plaque," shared Pastor Marlin.

Solar Oven Partners has been a part of Sapp's ministry journey. He served on the board and traveled with teams on two mission trips to Haiti with solar ovens. "I spoke at 20 or more churches on solar ovens," he said. "People loved to learn about the project."

These experiences set the foundation for becoming a pastor. "I think all of this gave me a better foundation to become a pastor," said Pastor Marlin. "My eyes were opened, and I became more empathetic."

The turning moment was when his daughter Dawn asked him, "Dad, why don't you go into a ministry full-time? You know, you like it, and then you'd like your work instead of going from here to there."

He finally surrendered to God's call. "It happened one night going to a PPR [Pastor Parish Relations] meeting. On the way over, I just realized I could probably do as good as a pastor as all those I had filled in for," said Pastor Marlin. "Ray Baker was the district superintendent at the time. He encouraged me to become a licensed local pastor."

In 2007, Sapp headed to licensing school in Fort Scott, Kansas. He was appointed to serve at Stickney UMC in Stickney, South Dakota. Later, Mount Vernon United Methodist Church was added to his charge.

"We followed people like Kermit Culver, Don Lagge, and Dave Motta at Stickney," he said. "After three years, Mount Vernon was a new alignment.”

Each summer, Pastor Marlin headed to Garrett-Evangelical Seminary to complete his course of study as a licensed local pastor. "There was not an online option at that time. So, each summer, I would travel to Garrett to complete the coursework," he said.

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Some of the improvements at Linton UMC include the flower boxes and the bell tower. Photo from Facebook.

In 2014, Carol and Marlin moved to Linton, North Dakota, to serve the United Methodist congregations in Linton and Sterling. There have been several improvements made to the church and parsonage, even adding some aesthetics by making flower boxes out of the brick from the old church, which was struck by lightning.

“We purchased a house next to the church, tore it down, and put up a basketball court with a parking lot. We made a handicap-accessible entrance, added flower beds, put up an LED sign, and redid the bell tower at the church,” said Pastor Marlin. “New windows, remolded the kitchen, new sidewalk and driveway, new siding was installed at the parsonage. The fact that we were able to get the courage to work together for the improvements and the money was in place before we started is a testament of faith.”

A highlight of ministry for Pastor Marlin is confirmation. "I enjoy teaching confirmation. I think it goes back to my days of teaching Sunday School," said Pastor Marlin. "To see young people commit, no matter their circumstances, is inspiring.”

He shares that walking alongside families during sickness and death is a privilege. Children's sermons are another highlight. "You never know what kids will say. They are so much fun. You just need to be ready to change the subject or quickly end with a prayer," said Pastor Marlin.

In retirement, Carol and Marlin will continue living in Linton, North Dakota, and serving the congregations at Linton and Sterling. They are grateful for the support of many people in the Dakotas Conference who have supported and prayed for their ministry— people like Nellie.

“Nellie, I call her auntie. She always prayed for us. I gave her a picture titled ‘Laughing Jesus.’ She shares that picture with others and prays for us,” said Marlin.

Advice that Pastor Marlin shares is the advice he received from Rev. Dave Motta, who also served at Stickney United Methodist Church. “He said, ‘Just love the people,’ and that is what I have been doing and will continue to do,” said Sapp.


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